So there we were, all of us at Delhi's Palam airport, and day had not yet broken. The international flights always came in the wee hours of the morning. We were all dressed in our best, angry and excited all at once, angry at having to be woken up at a strange hour to be scrubbed and brushed and dressed to meet our foreign relations and excited because we had never seen them before and because the foreign chocolates always tasted so much better.
Then we first glimpsed them, making their way through the lounge and I saw my father raise his hand through the iron railings and a raised hand from within the tumultuous crowd within signalled a response. There's your uncle, said my mother and my sister and I stared, with a mingled curiousity and a sudden shyness. We saw a man, not as tall nor as broad as my father, but already half balding and a face splitting grin. Then as he came nearer, we saw his eyes, crinkled up almost like an old wizened monkey, we saw the grooves that split his cheeks and the gaps between his teeth. We bent down as one to touch his feet, and gather up the dust onto our forehead ( just symbolically, as our father had told us) and he ruffled our hair and then turned back to introduce his family to us.
Then I saw Jill and now even years after the incident, I remember my first glimpse of her. She was beautiful, cherry haired, with a rosebud shaped mouth, and though I was a year older than her, she seemed to tower over me. We smiled at each other, and I smiled too at my aunt who held little Anne in her arms but I do not remember any of this in much detail.
We went home in two taxies hideously stuffed to over capacity , and I sat between Jill and my uncle. I sat there strangely reticent, all the while conscious of the princess like creature who sat next to me. And after a while, my uncle gave up any attempts to make small talk with me. Jill seemed curious, for her head was always turned left, away from me, out of the window. As we waited agonisingly for the traffic lights to turn green, I recollect Jill's deep bubbly laughter as a rather boorish cow reclining over almost one half of the road stared back at her, and I found myself looking at everyday things through her alien eyes and I realised that my world was a special one. Then as she asked more questions, all agog with curiousity, I found that I could speak again. So I explained to her how the small Hanuman temple came to be built right in the middle of the road, why the road was built around it so that it stood within its own minuscule square, and she listened all intent, nodding her head every so often. I was grateful to her, because I spoke haltingly and stumbled too over some words but she looked back at me, with a serious intent in her eyes. And I carried on, eager to impress this cousin of mine, so I turned up my nose when we passed by the slums, I sniggered at the taxi driver's raunchy curses as a cyclist veered too close for comfort and I pointed out the large cakes of dung that shone bang in the middle of the road.
To Jill, it was half home and still an alien world. That she was eager to drown herself in the novelty that surrounded her was evident in her eyes that had shaped themselves perpetually into moonlike saucers, from the excited shriek that burst from her lips as she saw something funny and the constant questions with which she bombarded her father. My uncle, was the quintessential physicist, absent minded, scruffy and often unintentionally gruff. So Jill turned to me, her elder cousin and I, gladly took Jill under my wing.
So for the next two weeks, Jill was always at my side - we pretended we were explorers set adrift in a wasteland, as we scrambled our way through the prickly gorse that lay to one side of the new high-rises that were within a short years going to change forever Delhi's skyline. I shot at squirrels with my catapult and when Jill grazed her knee against a very unsightly piece of gorse, I tore off some leaves off a small bush, rubbed it hard against my palms and rubbed them onto her leg. This is magic, I told her in a very manlike voice and she seemed impressed. Then there were times, when we accompanied our grandmother to the temple dedicated to Krishna, and both of us loved to listen to our grandmother narrate tales of the blue eyed god and from the Ramayan and Mahabharata. I showed the lovely picture books about the epics that my parents had bought me on my birthday and I found myself confronting a dozen and more questions, - how could a princess have five husbands, and a mother give birth to a hundred sons, how could a man live on for ever, and how on earth could a sari be so long as to never be completely unravelled. The Mahabharata had Jill fascinated. So while I played street cricket with the colony boys, Jill peered over my story books and carried on a quaint conversation with my grandmother, they conversed with each other in sign language, interspersed with statements in my grandmother's broken English.
But two weeks went by in a flash, but I remembered to buy Jill the same picture book that I had of the Mahabharata and she insisted on holding it with her to read through the flight. This despite the fact that my own book had become dog-eared and finger stained in the space of a fortnight.
I remember waving a goodbye to her as we stood on either side of the iron railings, she stood there wistful and pensive and as she passd through the immense glass portals she turned back with a final toss of her cherry curls and waved a final goodbye. And for the next few years, this was how she would appear to me as I thought of her; once she returned we wrote to each other but after a few months this became rather desultory for like all children, we grew up, too soon and too fast.
It was about eleven years later and I was in my final years of engineering college that we heard the distressing news. My uncle had been stricken by a heart attack while jogging in the neighbourhood park and succumbed to his death a few minutes, alone and unaided, gasping for breath in a strange land amidst unknown faces, far away from the land of his birth. I stood frozen in disbelief, as I heard Jill's sharp clipped accents, shorn of grief convey the news to us.
I saw my father's face, tormented and ravaged by a grief, for which no rationale existed; I saw my mother, sobbing into her sari end and my sister shocked into silence. To our grandmother, we refused to break the news.
So being the only son of the family, I boarded the next flight to London. I remember anew the cramped economy class in which I travelled, the stilted practised smiles of the stewardesses, and the ache in my lower back borne out of an eighteen hour flight. I had to concentrate on these trivialities for I knew not what I would tell Jill, how best I could offer my commiseration to an aunt who was even now a total stranger and to a younger cousin who I had last seen as a tiny toddler still clinging to her mother's skirt.
I did not expect to see Jill at Heathrow but she was there. But it was I who saw her first, for her cherry red hair drew her out strikingly among the densely milling crowd, and she waved to me once she saw me making way purposefully towards her. And we shook hands and stood for what seemed long ages in silence.
We walked towards the car, in total silence, words seemed futile and meaningless then . In the car I found myself listening to the chanting of the Gayatri mantra, carefully digitally recorded into a CD. But the chanting of the hymn, over and over again a hundred and eight times, in the deep sonorous voice of several priests had a balm like effect, it soothed and calmed the raging confusion in me. Jill had a face that spoke of utter serenity and acceptance, there were no furrows in her forehead, no downturn of the lips, it was a face that revealed peace within.
After we had driven a few miles and were halfway to Hampstead, she said, father's death was so unexpected and so unnecessary for he had only just seemed to have found what he had worked for so long, a professorship at the Imperial College. We were all so upset but suddenly in my grief, I remembered Lord Krishna 's words to Arjun on the eve of the battle.
Remember, Amit, we go through so many births and after many births the wise ones resort or surrender to the Supreme Being by realizing that everything is a manifestation of Brahman indeed. Persons of virtuous or unselfish deeds, whose Karma has come to an end, become free from the delusion of dualities and worship he Supreme Being with firm resolve.
Those who strive for freedom from the cycles of birth, old age and death by taking refuge in the Supreme Being know Brahman, the individual self, and Karma in its entirety. The steadfast persons, who know that Brahman is everything, ever present, all seeing and omniscient , remember the Supreme Being even at the time of death and realise Him.
She said all this, very dry eyed and very solemn, but as she reached the end of the shloka from the Gita's seventh chapter, I saw tears in her eyes but yet her voice did not break.
After I left India, Father began to recite the Gita to me, she continued. When I did not have the time, he used to read it aloud to himself. When we found him, he was still clutching a tattered, much loved tiny edition of the Gita hard in his hands and it seemed to us he was still smiling, his same familiar smile..
She turned to me, then saw the tears which hung precariously on the edge of my eyelids and said gently, Father did not die alone. He is fine, just fine.
We both looked at one another, tears unashamedly coursing down our cheeks. Separated by time and distances, the simple universality of the Gita's message had helped rekindle the old friendship of our childhood.